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And then they came for me

January 18th, 2009 · 3 Comments

One of the most extraordinary bits of journalism I’ve read for a long time appeared as an editorial in the Sri Lankan newspaper, the Sunday Leader, on Sunday January 11th 2009   It was reproduced in the Guardian on 13th January, and in The Times.  It was written by Lasantha Wickrematunge, editor of the Sunday Leader, and it was the last thing he wrote. Days after writing it he was assassinated.

It is a plea for freedom of speech. In particular, for the freedom of journalists to tell the truth,  It is deeply moving and it is also written in more beautiful English than many native speakers can manage. The second person to leave a comment in the Guardian said

“Extraordinary, humbling and deeply moving.

Cif Eds, please leave this at the top of the page for about a week, and then nail copies it to every available surface at Guardian HQ.”

Writing blogs like this one (and a thousand others) need some of the skills of investigative journalism.  Those skills are not so different from those you need in science, Curiosity, a willingness to look under stones, a preference for truth over myth, some skill with  Google and a good deal of tenacity.  You also need to be resilient to abuse and defamation by people who disagree with you.  But you do not risk your life. It does not take much courage.  That isn’t true in large parts of the world.

Read it all. Here are a few quotations to persuade you it’s worth the time.

“No other profession calls on its practitioners to lay down their lives for their art save the armed forces – and, in Sri
Lanka
, journalism. In the course of the last few years, the independent media have increasingly come under attack. Electronic and print institutions have been burned, bombed, sealed and coerced. Countless journalists have been harassed, threatened and killed. It has been my honour to belong to all those categories, and now  especially the last.”

“The Sunday Leader has been a controversial newspaper because we say it like we see it: whether it be a spade, a thief or a murderer, we call it by that name. We do not hide behind euphemism. The investigative articles we print
are supported by documentary evidence thanks to the public-spiritedness of citizens who at great risk to themselves pass on this material to us. We have exposed scandal after scandal, and never once in these 15 years has anyone proved us wrong or successfully prosecuted us.”

“The free media serve as a mirror in which the public can see itself sans mascara and styling gel. From us you learn the state of your nation, and especially its management by the people you elected to give your children a better future.”

“It is well known that I was on two occasions brutally assaulted, while on another my house was sprayed with machine-gun fire. Despite the government’s sanctimonious assurances, there was never a serious police inquiry into the perpetrators of these attacks, and the attackers were never apprehended.

In all these cases, I have reason to believe the attacks were inspired by the government. When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me.”

“In the wake of my death I know you will make all the usual sanctimonious noises and call upon the police to hold a swift and thorough inquiry.

But like all the inquiries you have ordered in the past, nothing will come of this one, too. For truth be told, we both know who will be behind my death, but dare not call his name. Not just my life but yours too depends on it.

As for me, I have the satisfaction of knowing that I walked tall and bowed to no man. And I have not travelled this journey alone. Fellow journalists in other branches of the media walked with me: most are now dead, imprisoned
without trial or exiled in far-off lands.”

“People often ask me why I take such risks and tell me it is a matter of time before I am bumped off. Of course I know that: it is inevitable. But if we do not speak out now, there will be no one left to speak for those who cannot,
whether they be ethnic minorities, the disadvantaged or the persecuted. An example that has inspired me throughout my career in journalism has been that of the German theologian, Martin Niemöller. In his youth he was an antisemite and an admirer of Hitler. As nazism took hold of Germany, however, he saw nazism for what it was. It was not just the Jews Hitler sought to extirpate, it was just about anyone with an alternate point of view. Niemöller spoke out, and for his trouble was incarcerated in the Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps from 1937 to 1945, and very nearly executed. While incarcerated, he wrote a poem that, from the first time I read it in my teenage years, stuck hauntingly in my mind:

First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.

If you remember nothing else, let it be this: the Leader is there for you, be you Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, low-caste, homosexual, dissident or disabled.”

This man puts to shame the those who won’t speak out in the safety of the West, despite the fact that they have nothing to lose but their ministerial jobs or their knighthoods. Or running the risk of being sued by chiropractors.

How about some nominations for Western journalists who live up to these ideals?   I’d start with Seymour Hersh and Paul Krugman in the USA, and our own Ben Goldacre.   It’s interesting though, that two of these three are not full time journalists. Blogs do rather better than most newspapers. They have become an important force for freedom of speech. That more than counterbalances the use of the web for promoting junk. It is a lot harder to keep a secret than it used to be.

There is an obituary of Lasantha Wickrematunge in the Sunday Leader, and a report from Amnesty International.

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Tags: chiropractic · chiropractor · Freedom of speech · Journalism · Lasantha Wickrematunge · Politicians · politics

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Für Pressefreiheit | Derangierte Einsichten // Jan 18, 2009 at 16:22

    [...] Improbable Science bin ich auf den Artikel im Guardian gestoßen, der den Kommentar [...]

  • 2 ascienceblogger // Jan 18, 2009 at 18:53

    Powerful and extraordinary article.

    FDA and CDC officials and scientists who dare whistleblow or stand up to special interest groups have also received death threats or had their labs or clinics burnt down. But I agree that those in positions of power or financially secure positions are almost never willing to speak out and jeopardize their own interests. I agree that the truth is more often found online. But you say it doesn’t take much courage to speak out as a blogger and that one doesn’t risk their life. I would disagree. I have had death threats and online forums discussing ways to have me killed, including a simulated video attack. Blogging can cost one their livelihood and professional reputation. Several medical and science bloggers stopped blogging after threats to their lives or jobs. Lone bloggers have become more vulnerable this past year than ever before. I have watched credible and honest bloggers defamed by well-funded and organized opponents whose political agendas and financial interests are threatened by science and the truth. These include degreed professionals, making it important to remember that the truth is often squelched within journalism and scientific communities themselves.

  • 3 andrew // Jan 28, 2009 at 19:12

    Lasantha Wickrematunge must have been a man of considerable courage – and courage is the greatest of the virtues. Other virtues may not survive without courage to support them. The point is that Lasantha Wickrematunge showed his courage not in a single event, but over years. He must have lived in fear for decades. That experience must test one to the highest degree and change a man for ever.

    Lasantha’s life raises two questions

    a) In the comfortable West, who would have the courage to stand up to even a diluted form of intimidation and bullying? (diluted when compared to Lasantha’s experience) And to stand up to face it not for ten minutes, but for decades ? Clearly to do so is the proper thing course, but at a cost of a lifetime spent in fear.
    b) What would happen if we found ourselves in a position of power, able to use unethical and immoral means to further our own selfish interests? Would we have the courage, the self discipline to restrain the desire to punish some poor isolated blogger or scientist ? Even at a cost to ourselves ?

    Ascienceblogger highlights question a) but question b) was less obvious to me, but well worth some reflection.

    My nomination for upright Western journalist would be Ben Goldacre or DC as a science blogger. Both have stood up to intimidation – Ben G. in the Africa/Aids law suit and DC against herbalists and the back crackers. Neither of these things would have been over in ten minutes. From the way their two web sites operate, I can’t see either giving in over question b) either.

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